Otto Gross – pedagogy as Nebenzimmererotik: a rival cure for mimetic ailments.
The reconstruction of the American soul: an interview with Professor Lance Duerfahrd (part 1)
(For the “Prologue” to this post please see Teacher of Bad Film 1.)
I’ll state this: pedagogy does not make room for the unconscious.
Otto Gross refers in a 1913 text to the asexuality of pedagogy, by which he means the exclusion of the bourgeois child from experience, from “Erleben”: from experiencing but also from undergoing, from living. Gross traces the anti-experiential bias to the original bourgeois divisions, to the insistence on separate (homo-)sexual identities. As the sexual roles between husband and wife (exclusive and coerced) are strictly regimented, the child’s role is that of a third party, the being on the side, split off from Erleben. Thus banned from the parental bedroom, in all the senses you wish that to mean, it condemns the child to a substitute, a represented life, a Nebenzimmererotik: the eros of the adjoining room. The child is to remain the eternal spectator, never participating, meaning never creating. Education is to continue the isolation of the child by taking over the principle of fragmentation of the family: “Beziehungslosigkeit zum Kind, insofern das Kind am Erleben nicht teilnehmen darf (Nebenzimmererotik), sofern er erzogen werden soll (die geltenden pädagogischen Grundsätze streben zur Asexualität).” Prevailing pedagogical principles stipulate asexuality: there is to be no experience in education. Representation and education, insofar as both exclude the lived happening in favor of an image, are no longer separate and are meant to cement the child’s identity.(1)
Both film viewing and psychoanalysis have a rival in education. If we feel we know what a film review is describing, it’s because we were taught how, by reading, to agree (or to recognize but recognizing means agreeing). If education teaches us how to forget what we went through, it’s because pedagogy cannot deal with – in the sense of acknowledge, or consciously integrate – radical partialities or experiences. The best educated lost most experience.
Conversely, you cannot really think or remember an experience if you do not know how you were taught.
Before going deeper into the mimetic struggle pedagogy (authority) engages in, or attempts to deny, or put to rest, I felt the blog needed to create a text that asks a few exploratory questions of education: in the case of this particular series of blog entries (“Teacher of Bad Film”) the teaching of film is relevant. I took a look at, in my opinion, a path breaking film class and interview its teacher: Professor Lance Duerfahrd who currently teaches a class on “Bad Film” at Purdue University in Indiana. After Yale, Columbia and Amherst his skill as a film and literature pedagogue is ascending.
What are “bad films”?
In his class, Professor Duerfahrd does not screen “critical failures”, but, rather, the unmentionables: A Night to Dismember, Doomsday Machine, Plan 9 from Outer Space, or the more recent The Room as well as educational, industrial jeopardy and mental hygiene films.
In such films an actor might change mid film, or start wearing a wig – both for no good reason – a character might be dubbed in different voices, a dog may chase a suspect because the shoot happened to be near the dog’s backyard, or a string attached to a saucer stands in for a frightening alien invasion. It is noticeably contrived, it is wrong, someone seems to lack skill, time and money to produce a seamless product. Theirs is a borderline vision, intruded upon by odd accidents. “In short,“ Professor Duerfahrd says, “a bad film is anything that wouldn’t be admitted into the pantheon of films, or be considered classroom material. The films have expired in some way: they no longer function as living illusion. So you see how they are edited, acted, put together. You see these qualities more than you believe in the film. Something about each film [he screens in class] must be off-center.”
A bad film does not dupe you like its respectable counterpart: if film were ideology, if film were pure commodity, the bad film would be its creaky likeness, its neurotic and necrotic but naked royal cousin. The protagonist of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Sandmann might still fall in love with this construction but it would be a story of a different delusion, one no longer based in the aesthetic. (Watching the bad film class I felt invited to Spalanzani’s party presentation of his creation, with the class, and the prof, playing at times the role of love struck Nathaniel, at many other times that of the puzzled bystanders. That was disturbing, in a good sense.)
The bad film offers this chance, however: as it lays bare, often and at length, the simple fact that it is made, it frees the viewer – who is not being impressed upon by their culture’s particular preconceptions – to realize their own craft: their mimetic abilities and presences, their participation in the film’s construction. I could do this – better is a common thought when viewing a bad film. “An artist is someone who returns to humanity their divinity – Un artiste, c’est quelqu’un qui rend à l’homme sa divinité,” Bruno Dumont claims, ”le Dieu, c’est le spectateur.” The God is here the creator-spectator – not exalted, but capable, able. (It involves a different type of faith: one that believes that the spectator-student can recuperate, rather than be taught by teacher-authorities, their ways of seeing. This American project ignores the idea of school as correcting the student – of giving them the culture they lack – in favor of a promise of personal realizations.)
The work Professor Duerfahrd does in the classroom has little to do with reporting to students what scholars talking to each other – about each other – come up with. His teaching of film starts with the individual student’s inability and unwillingness to account for what they just saw in the projection space. The aim is not to bring the student up to speed on accepted – otherwise taught and relayed – forms of discourse about film. The student is not to speak like his teachers in the end. (The professor needs to “let go of this stricture over the classroom,” as he explains.) On the contrary, rather than confirm accepted standards, his class is oriented around the experience of surprise:
“The first step for you to succeed in this class,” his course description reads, “ is to forget everything you have heard, know, or read about being bad.”
Being bad can mean different things here, not merely inadequate and failing. It is bad as something to be mocked (Teenagers from Outer Space), discrepant and finite (Robot Monster), incoherent (A Night to Dismember), self important (The Room), preposterous (Glen or Glenda), or manipulative and overly pedantic (driver’s ed and industrial films). But it can also be over serious (camp, as defined by Susan Sontag), self-consciously derivative (Peggy Ahwesh’s The Scary Movie), unprofessional or untrained (Brecht), outright (Jerry Butler), occult (Artaud on ‘Sorcery and Cinema’), high quality on a low budget (Roger Corman), constantly delaying and digressing (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), in bad taste (Pink Flamingos), excessive (Russ Meyer), outside mainstream (Warhol, The Karen Carpenter Story, Pound) and undecipherable (Showgirls, which “straddles good and bad taste like a pommel horse.”). Bad is not self-evident and is counter intuitive. Bad can be what you don’t know about being bad. It is certainly not all bad.
As you will see in the interview the approach forgoes jargon – broadly understood as a discourse that aims at a critical legitimation, which includes common sense – and attempts to achieve a point of ignorance, of absence of chatter. This is not about film per se – meaning film as an object of study. (In this, Professor Duerfahrd’s pedagogy rejoins Bruno Dumont’s emphasis on film as mere preparation to the development of the viewer.)
It’s about students who have been led to avoid at all costs accounting for, or even having an experience with film – or in general. This makes her or him more akin to a patient than a student.
His class thus carries a larger social project: students who are not able to have an experience, or recount it, do not learn and do not properly live. (And the teacher who needs to further alienate the students from their experience in order to teach clarity and distinction – a critical point of view – ends up falling into various ideological and authoritarian traps.) An emphasis on experience might very well bypass the university as institution, but make possible what Bion conceived of as the true university: where knowledge is not stored and relayed at will, but happens in groups. Professor Duerfahrd is reconstructing the American soul, one (bad) film at a time.
I spoke at length to Professor Duerfahrd about his work, and watched and listened to a number of his classes. I sense that this is confrontational work, arduous and with, possibly, very little reward. He wants the students to state what they actually saw – which is different from the more streamlined versions of pedagogy that prefer the student to see what is really there. “Facts create norms but they do not create an illumination,” German film director Werner Herzog says in an interview. One major subtext in Professor Duerfahrd’s class description – usually meant to entice a student into taking one’s class (see here for a different invitation) – is I do not want you in the class:
“If you do not want to undergo the necessary pain in becoming a better film viewer, don’t take the class.”
A better film viewer cannot be taught; she or he can only learn (how to care).
It might not flatter the students’ ego to have them realize what they lost, but it should lead to the happiness of reengaging with what is. Professor Duerfahrd achieves this with great analytical craft, exceptional powers of intellectual and emotional improvisation, as well as an intense wit and humor. This way of teaching – which relies on the presence of mind of, in this case, an American original – can thus not be replicated, cannot be directly a model for other pedagogues to emulate and apply. It asks of fellow teachers to neglect the institution. Or be post-institutional. “You can’t teach if you feel the institution is scrutinizing you, “ he claims, “because then you only want to do what’s [seen as] right.”
Otto Gross’ utopian psychoanalytic hope against loneliness, or isolation was not the authoritarian ethos of forcing communities to form, of having people agree, but of bringing to the fore the “indomitable will” of the individual “who recognizes himself to be himself”: “der unbezwingbare Willen des Menschen, der sich selber erkennt, er selbst zu sein” (Gross in Von geschlechtlicher Not, 171) – an ability he was convinced psychoanalysis would bring about. I see similarities and potentialities here in Lance Duerfahrd’s work, that I never experienced in the more usual classroom situations.
In the end, I also learned a lot about film watching his class on Samourai Cop. Also: I now wait for the credits to end before I leave the cinema.
Emanuel Hurwitz, Otto Gross – Paradies-Sucher zwischen Freud und Jung (1979)
Otto Gross, “Zur Neuerlichen Vorarbeit: Vom Unterricht” (1920) in Von geschlechtlicher Not zur sozialen Katastrofe (2000)
Picture of Gross: ›MÄRZ-Mammut. MÄRZ-Texte 1 & 2‹, 1969 – 1984, Herausgegeben von Jörg Schröder
The Bad Film Interview: Part I
Even if the interview has as a background specifically “bad” films – and Professor Duerfahrd refers to a number of them in his examples – we cover a very wide ground. Part I of the interview thus includes both a dissection of the difference “bad films” make in our understanding of the spectator’s role in a film as well as the teaching of film in general, with examples from a variety of film classes he taught, and the viewing habits of the students. Part II will focus on emotions in the classroom and in psychoanalysis. A later part on his remaking of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space with various groups: in old peoples’ homes, with juvenile delinquents, library patrons, children, undocumented labourers and so forth. Another installment might deal with his staging of Waiting for Godot on Occupy Wall Street: his attempt to realize an argument he makes in an upcoming book on staging Beckett in prisons, war zones and disaster areas.
I start the interview by making a claim: there is nothing to teach in film. Our knowledge about film – the way we talk about it in institutions – is based on the assumption that film not only means something other than it shows – usually a moral of some sort – but that we can agree on what is being shown: that film can be taught because we sit together in a cinema. The more disquieting but more apparent possibility – that everyone sees a different film, and no one sees the film shown – puts into question the idea of a “film history” and film studies. There is nothing to objectively agree on – so how can it enter the academy? Also: how can I possibly be quizzed on a film I just saw?
Luc Kinsch: There is nothing to teach in film.
Lance Duerfahrd: There is nothing to teach… A lot of things come to mind around the way you put it here. I agree there is nothing to teach in film. But we have to counter this assertion with the observation that there may be something to learn from film. What students bring to the class is an experience which they have poorly understood, or half-understood. If there is something to teach, it has to do with that experience of the film. It doesn’t mean teaching the film as an object that can be the basis for something – for example a number of text books have a lot of technical jargon that seems to coalesce the film experience into technical terms: shots, camera movements … And they impart those terms and that, supposedly, is the way you learn about film.
When does the film experience really end? Because you watch and it’s over and you continue to think about it – and it’s in the classroom where the experience keeps going but it’s the experience rather than film: it’s what you say about film, not the film as an authoritative object.
Luc Kinsch: You say that a number of textbooks are written in jargon. The author, he or she, refers to an objective thing but they are actually talking about their experience – or, possibly, to a perversion of their experience after years of academia, and seeing in view of publishing or teaching – and they take that “empirical” basis to a film to be something that is there for everybody? In reality, everyone has seen a different film.
Lance Duerfahrd: These books take experience out of the picture altogether. So what you get is film without experience. Film without experience is pure formality. I think shots, camera movements, and so forth – these are important, and they are a part of the class but the teaching of the film class has to begin with a rejection of this deadening formality or technicality at two fronts: one is the film itself – reduced to a bunch of formulae – but also your own talking about the film which, according to these textbooks, has to address this jargon. Tracking shots, certain lenses, certain filters … the guy who writes these textbooks is looking for consensus and some kind of empirical basis of film learning and he finds it in the mechanism of film. Film mechanism is important but is it more important than the effect it creates? He can’t talk about how students respond to these mechanisms. The textbooks never talk about that. They never say: what do you do with this? Why care about film at all, if it were just these ingredients that you get in the average textbook? I don’t think anyone would go to a cinema. What’s missing is the elusive quality of that experience. The classes I teach focus on recovering that experience, and may be on beginning to have that experience in the classroom.
It’s not over when the end credits begin. I think the fact that the students leave before the credits show is an important symptom. Basically they say: “well, once the action stops I can leave and my experience is done.” But I say you have to sit through the whole thing and not because we want to worship the director or all the technical names that follow but because that’s part of the film, that’s part of the experience. And what most people are mistaken about – or at least my students are – they think their experience ends with the beginning of the credits.
I am trying to get them to actually have an experience and I think it’s possible in class.
Luc Kinsch: Students see films in class, but also outside of class. Do students have knowledge of the formula of these textbooks? And, if not, is there some kind of apprehension that there will be a formula?
Lance Duerfahrd: Yeah. Even the graduate students. The first day of graduate class a student from China asks: “Are we supposed to talk using technical lingo about filmmaking?” That was her first question. “Are we supposed to talk in lingo?” There is some confusion. “If I am to talk with knowledge about film, do I have to employ the technical jargon?” Harnessing your knowledge of movies through a strictly technical lingo is like talking about sex in church.
Luc Kinsch: mhmm…
Lance Duerfahrd: It exerts pressure on you, which is at odds with really encountering the film.
The university hasn’t handled this idea of learning from film very well. On the surface it’s an interesting predicament. Students sit mute in literature classes but get chatty in classes about film. This chattiness to me is part of an attempt to insist that there is something symbolic about film: it connects people in society, it makes them agree or disagree with others, in a kind of parody of the democratic process. Many teachers mistake this opinion-mongering about cinema – which people feel ‘entitled’ towards because they feel they ‘own’ the medium, can order its arrival to their homes, … – for learning. But the main obstruction to students is their opinionated-ness. They feel they know cinema because they go to it – which differentiates cinema from a novel. They don’t read so when they take a class on the novel I don’t think they come armed with opinions. Because they go to the movies – you have to reckon with this – they already know how to watch a
movie. They know how to watch a movie, and yet they don’t know how to talk about it.
But the realization that there is “nothing to teach” – as you say in your opening statement – and that film occupies a zero in the symbolic register can only occur when you get students to stop talking – to end their chattiness. Only then do their eyes go to work.
The academy upholds films as symbolic practice. The limitations of this approach become apparent when we realize that most writing about film is a contribution not to film but to Film Studies – meaning something is done for the library of knowledge, but not for the film. What would it mean to do something for a film? We all do it: to go to them rabidly, to collect them, to replay them, to dream them, to put yourself out for them. More modestly, it also includes trying to address the experience of the film, first and foremost, rather than its conceptual weightiness. It involves acknowledging how this particular film is elusive to our understanding in this particular way.
Luc Kinsch: Let’s bring in the notion of entertainment. You supposedly go to the cinema to dissipate something – or that is what you are told in a lot of places. It’s not necessarily what you actually do, it’s what you are told you are doing. Film as entertainment: you go to forget, to unload, to diffuse and all that. That notion, suggested to us through various channels, supposedly describes our experience of film – it must come in for your students, as well. Not just the formulaic approach.
Lance Duerfahrd: They are bored very quickly with all the films I show them. They do not have any patience with some of the more demanding – even films I think are exciting. It’s complicated: their entertainment hunger is the reason they take the class. But what they are entertained by is so narrow. I could never possibly teach a film strictly on terms of their entertainment. And that starts to obstruct things because if it doesn’t fall into that narrow category of what they like for films – The Godfather for a whole section of the class is the apex of enjoyable movies – that’s film history for them. It begins and ends there. Because it’s violent. Or A Clockwork Orange: just the violent scenes. They know clips from Kubrick but they haven’t endured, so to speak, the whole “Ludovico” experience. They haven’t familiarized themselves with it.
Luc Kinsch: What about their opinonatedness – their opinons?
Lance Duerfahrd: It’s always good or bad. They are doing the Judge Judy thing … [in that show] you watch her pass verdict on people’s cases in front of their eyes. That’s what the students do. They can’t help it. They think their entertainment is the reason for the film. It’s a hard point to deny. As I said, they wouldn’t be in the class, if film hadn’t entertained them.
Luc Kinsch: What does entertainment mean for them?
Lance Duerfahrd: I think it means repressing certain questions. Like “what is [actually] happening on the screen?” The whole question of what is going on for them has to be framed in terms of suspense. That is, not “what is happening?” but “what is going to happen next?”
If the film isn’t doing that, they have their phones ready. In most of the classes you have to exile the phone from their life. Most of what I say in film class is “you have to break habits, you have to learn new habits. You have to get rid of old habits.” The old habits are the need for entertainment and the need for the phone. Those are strangely connected in some way. As soon as the film stops entertaining them, they start texting, staring at their phone. Most of the early weeks of the class are spent getting them off this habit. What I say is – once I gave the following example: “what if you were making love to someone and they reached for their phone? How would you feel, what would you do?” And I asked a number of them. And the response was amazing. One girl said: “I wouldn’t talk to them for two weeks.” And I said “Two weeks?!” I said “you’re really patient!” Going to a phone in the middle of intercourse has to be the only way to articulate what it means to interrupt your experience with a film because there is no other intimate experience as intimate as film, except getting it on. And they have to see that. I said. “Do you know how you felt when someone reached for a phone? How do you think the film feels?” Everyone’s interrupting their intimacy with the phone!
Luc Kinsch: What about dreams? You see cinema as what happens before you dream – aka sex. Let me quote to you Bion – he is talking about his patients’ dreaming:
If I say to the patient, “Where did you go last night and what did you see?” he may be very anxious to insist that he went to bed and went to sleep. I say, “I don’t mind what you did with your body. Where did you go and what did you see?”
How would your students talk about their dreams?
Lance Duerfahrd: Excellent question, to which I have no good answer. I think the crucial thing is what do we do with the interruptions either to sex or to dreaming – since this is what I am trying to discourage. Coitus interruptus – by texting, for example, or by ordering food out, or by talking, all of which my students obsessively do during films – versus interrupting the dream state: awaking. I am not keen on ordering the students or telling them what to do. Instead I try to have them develop a relation to cinema, to envision it as something they interact with. Hence: envision it as a sexual relationship! When I ask them “what would you do if your lover started texting while getting it on with you, or was holding the TV remote control in his or her hand?” I have them connect to that anger or frustration. I ask them “How then do you imagine Faces or City Lights or The Last Laugh or whatever feels when you are texting while watching it?” In a way I want their attention to be amorously attuned to the movie.
Bion’s question is fascinating and effective. I wonder if it can be applied to the film experience. Where did you go and what did you see? I would rephrase this as: what did you see and where did it bring you? The condition of the body in the cinema is shared by everyone in it, and we all know where the “theater” is. But where does it bring you? I always start with the eye. What did you see, not what do you think, or how do you judge.
Watching a film and dreaming are obviously akin to one another. You watch and can only un-watch it – or remove yourself from it – by an unsticking process. It’s hard to “detach” oneself and keep doing either.
Luc Kinsch: Let’s go back to entertainment and the phone. The phone is something they hold, that they use, that they always have with them. It serves a number of purposes. Then there is entertainment. What do they look for here?
Lance Duerfahrd: There is a lot of consensus for its need without any understanding of what it is.
My hunch is … I don’t want to separate it from the phone. Entertainment in the cinema … the delight of going to a film nowadays, at least for college students, is about no claims being made on you from the bizarre, or the strange, or the unfamiliar. As soon as the connection to the film is lost, they go to their phone. I’ve seen people texting, saying they are at a movie to people they know.
I’m not certain. In some ways, it’s to share … I don’t have a good answer …
Luc Kinsch: Do you ever ask your students directly this question about entertainment? Do you ever ask them what they look for?
Lance Duerfahrd: I do but I feel they oblige me with stuff about “escapism.” That’s still trotted out. I don’t really believe it. Because if they are really escaping, it’s no longer escaping into the movie, it’s escaping from the movie. That’s the escapism. It’s to be confronted by an image on the screen that you are looking at only occasionally – as if you are looking at highlights.
Luc Kinsch: You are saying that even in Hollywood movies there is something they don’t want to look at, that they want to avoid.
Lance Duerfahrd: Yeah. You know, the fact that Transformers is such a successful franchise – it almost repulses the idea of getting involved in it. It keeps setting up bars to your escaping into a world in favor of, I would say, watching it kind of indifferently, watching it without forgetting yourself. That’s the escapism. Actually: it’s not even escapism, it’s more like maroon-ism. Where you get marooned but you can watch something kind of float by and you have your phone. And your escapism is involved with occasionally looking at the film, and occasionally using your phone.
I see it as a behavioral thing, at least in the theaters around here, filled with undergraduates. That seems to be what they are doing.
But I don’t have a good hunch about what constitutes their entertainment.
Luc Kinsch: What you are describing is a distraction. They can’t go there and monastically watch a movie. May be they are not even watching a movie, but they do something else, as you say, a behavior. It’s not just where you live. I see this even in Parisian cinemas, with a number of young people. This is not just a Mid-West thing. In my own personal film going history, I remember the film Rocky – seeing it in the cinema, back in the day. It was the first time I saw people yelling at the screen, at the fight scenes, being engaged in a way that suggested they were refusing the film – paradoxically, as they were so engaged – demanding it be real. And Rocky was very successful.
Let me ask you about the notion of consumerism. With the cell phones, everything is provided with these gadgets: you can’t find something because everything is there – so there is no experience – although it’s not what you need probably. So looking for something becomes a paradoxical quest.
Do you ever get the impression that young people built up an unconscious resistance to films – or rather to films as consumer goods, to that kind of neoliberal opportunism or cynicism posing as art – by tuning out, by not honoring the commercial product with their total attention when they use their cellphones, or talk in the midst of a film – and the joke would be on the one who cares about film? It would be unconscious, and as such contradictory, because they also identify with the consumer product …
Lance Duerfahrd: The students in my class, or the audience at the mall theater, seem to be not resisting at any level. Cell phones are about wedding the spectator to the familiar – the circle of friends. Cellphones: how often do you get a wrong call? When is it a surprise? I feel like the phone is a way to annul boredom, but then becomes eventually an excuse to be bored with engaging what is unfamiliar – which boredom may be a response to. They want to turn the public viewing space of the cinema into their living rooms, where they can talk loudly and basically have the film get lost in their comfy furniture, the photos on the wall. This is again about owning something in the mind, rather than engaging something you can’t really own: your film experience. So I don’t see it as resistance to cynical films – they do this with all films: are all films cynical? – or ideology being beaten into them … it has, but the phone is part of this, not its contrary. Consumerism triumphs when the fantasy of ownership extends to every public space – the theater becomes your home viewing area, you don’t need tact, discretion. But worshipping tact and discretion can also lead down a terrible path, I suppose. Nobody wants to be that person who has to say “Shhhhhhh.”
I see the immunity to cinema as the result of all this – immunity to being affected by it but still somehow wanting it. They go back, only to display their immunity once again. The mall, Hollywood, the film industry, wants fans exactly like this: people who don’t care about the product but digest it anyway. I said this to my students yesterday: the ideal fan in the eyes of Hollywood is one who goes to see a sequel and can’t remember that it’s part of a series. Transformers 3 will always be Transformers 1.
Immunity to cinema is not resistance because it’s not changing how you consume films. It just means you endure them absentmindedly. When someone at the cinema interrupts your viewing it can also be a way of afflicting you with that immunity- i.e. you look around you, you stop following the film, you stop trying to figure a way in.
You ask: are they hanging onto something underneath this response. I don’t think so. It’s maroon-ism, not escapism. Or solipsism without introspection. Forrest Gump-ism in 3D.
Students do not resist indoctrination. I am amazed at their capacity to repeat what I say, even when I’m trying to get them to talk for themselves. They can absorb and repeat without paying much attention. They resist indoctrination far less than they do thinking or articulating.
Luc Kinsch: Do you ask your students about what they felt or what they saw during a projection?
Lance Duerfahrd: Yes, it’s mostly about bringing it forth to response. What they feel is one thing, but actually what I am trying to have them do is process that into a response. Not process it through the jargon of film textbooks, but process it through their own reflection of their experience. That’s the start of getting them to be involved in a film. I believe they do that, the more they articulate in their own way what a film does for them they will abandon the phone – because their focus will become more inward in some ways. I am trying to encourage that. I don’t think it’s clear what a film does to somebody. That hasn’t been settled in my mind.
I talk about the word “entertainment” in class. And I say the goal of the class is not to be entertained by the film, but for you to entertain the film. But, ironically to entertain it the way you would entertain a guest, a visitor or a notion. I want you to entertain this. Let it in – rather than throwing your demands at it. Let it seep in as if you were friendly to it. Or may be even letting it pass through your mind, almost indifferently. Entertain the film, don’t reject it because it doesn’t entertain you. That’s the goal because their instinct is to throw up their force fields. Either look at the film or deny the film. Look at the phone or deny the film.
Luc Kinsch: Give me some examples of what you do in class.
Lance Duerfahrd: I give you the one that happened yesterday. We were watching Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. And everyone was saying … there is a lot of great generation of thought because I said I want you to complete this analogy, and I explained what an analogy is, because they didn’t know:
“Seeing a string on a flying saucer is like – blank – ”
For 5 minutes they all wrote down. It started the radiation of their experience of the film. One guy said it was like seeing the President on the toilet. Another person said it was like saying there is no Santa Claus to your 26 year-old brother.
Luc Kinsch: Did you ask him whether he had a 26 year-old brother?
Lance Duerfahrd: I did. He didn’t.
This is good because what the students do is: they create an image that is as dense as the image on the screen. But then because they created the second image – like the president on the toilet, telling your 26 year-old brother – it forces their own understanding of the cinema up to the surface, because they created this image. So, for example Santa Claus: what makes a film you believe in [as opposed to a “bad film” like Plan 9] – where you don’t see the string in – what makes it like Santa Claus? Why is it like the icon for Christmas, or for gift giving? And secondly – why is it like telling a 26 year-old rather than a 7 year-old that Santa Claus doesn’t exist?
What happens is: in having them articulate something somewhat … not poetically … but in drawing a comparison to something that has nothing to do with the film, it allows something to surface that they didn’t understand that the film had encouraged. It’s hard to explain why that was such a good experience. We spent much of the class discussing this. Or take the president on the toilet. That’s about the film losing some authority: it ends up looking banal and familiar and filthy. The exercise kind of activated all the unspoken things about film going but only by giving them this really precise assignment.
Luc Kinsch: What is already astounding about this is that you give them 5 minutes for this, whereas they normally have a split second of rejection for it. They are given the luxury of 5 minutes of thinking about this – it brings them in, in the sense that they are allowed to explore this beyond impatience or judgment. Because they are not supposed to find that good. May be as kids they would have thought the string was great, the best thing would be the string, not the flying saucer. In your “Bad Film” class – and let me draw a parallel with psychoanalysis: suddenly you see the value, you are allowed to have time with something that may have been embarrassing, or something that you put away, or put away too many times, because you never knew where to put it. You and psychoanalysis give the time with this kind of material. It’s opening up doors.
In the same way “Bad Films” could be a really bad class if you let them dismiss the films.
It’s interesting because you are not giving them Bergman. You are giving them films they know other teachers won’t teach. It’s like the “accursed share”. We all know it, no one wants to talk about it, but, yet, may be it’s a necessity. We should do it because may be it’s part of us, and, anyway, we are not ready yet for the big films. The time you give them with the class is a very important element in the way you can teach.
Lance Duerfahrd: You said a lot of things that are right on. Whereas in a regular film class they go in expecting to be entertained, in my “Bad Film” class the supposition really forcibly in place is that they are going to laugh for a whole semester and it is that laugh of disdain for the film, or the laughter against the weak that is a laugh they anticipate giving during every screening during the whole semester, and it’s a laugh of a verdict – it’s a verdict that’s already happened. But somehow it’s easier to work with that verdict and to turn them toward something other than laughing or doing more than laughing – that makes it easier to teach these films.
Their hypothesis of what they are going to be doing is less enigmatic than entertainment because they know they are going to offer their own entertainment by laughing. And already that’s interesting. When they go to a film, they think the entertainment is on the screen. They do not really see that they are going to be entertaining themselves. In bad films, they realize it’s what they do that makes the film. They know that already by signing up for the class.
Luc Kinsch: The advantage of the “Bad Films” class is that they have a hunch that whatever is going to be taught in this class is something they are going to teach themselves?
Lance Duerfahrd: Absolutely. It starts with their response. I say it over and over again. There is no bad film, there is only a bad film response. There are crappy films that you can make interesting by your response. You can ruin great films by your response. It’s a response-based class that I teach. The experience continues after the film is over. The classroom is where that experience actually begins. That’s a good, simple way of putting it.
Luc Kinsch: Do they think that you know something they don’t?
Lance Duerfahrd: I would say yes, in most film classes. But in Bad Film, it strikes me that they don’t see me as an expert in bad film. I don’t think that’s possible. What would an expert on bad film be, other than an amateur? If they see me as an authority, it doesn’t obstruct the class, it doesn’t silence them as much as that does in a class on Bergman or Antonioni. The bad film is more accessible to them, because that impulse to laugh is their way they take it up, they own it. But in being more familiar to them in that way, they can expand that familiarity. It’s a tough question …
Luc Kinsch: Do they think the film knows something they don’t?
Lance Duerfahrd: That’s even harder to guess. I came into class one day after showing them Doris Wishman’s A Night to Dismember.
Luc Kinsch: The Wishmanian oeuvre I am unfamiliar with …
Lance Duerfahrd: It is truly an amazing film. First of all, the actors change – in Bunuel’s The Obscure Object of Desire the actress changes and none of characters on screen seem to notice: with Wishman that happens three or four times. The actors change, the voices that are dubbed change – so that the same bodies get different voices. It’s like a UN assembly filtering itself through three onscreen personae. So when I came into class that day the students were madly trying to figure out the structure of the family in the film. Like “who is related to whom?” Because it’s all about this family called the Kent family. And they were really picking their brains: is he a cousin? Who’s the mother? I came in and I didn’t say anything for ten minutes. The class was talking when I got there. It continued to talk ten minutes into the class, trying to figure out: what is the Kent family in the film. And if there was some way in which they elevated me as knowledge, as a knowing subject, they wanted to know if I knew the family tree. Had I myself figured out this question?
My role was not to answer the question about the exact family tree of the Kent family. It was to say: we have to expand what a family is. It’s not to think about mothers and fathers and children, or cousins or relatives. It was: what happens when you have three different voices in the same body? Isn’t that three people? What happens when one of the characters suddenly adopts the voice of the narrator of the story? It was a crucial moment in class: the students were trying to erect an authority behind the film, seeking a knowledge about the film so they basically would not have to look at the film anymore. You kind of figure out what’s behind the scene: who is related to whom? it’s like a mystery. And I had the key to the mystery. And they were trying to figure it out.
It was one of those pure moments of teaching: they want to know one thing, as if that would solve the film and make it more bearable – because it would solve the riddle – and they turned to me as the purveyor of that key. The sheer confusion of Wishman’s filmmaking technique threw them into panic and they solved their panic by mapping out the genealogy.
And it makes sense. It was so funny. The reason I let them do it … In a regular film class I’d say: let’s stop this. You can’t ask unanswerable questions. That’s not a good way to begin. But I let them go on. Their efforts to create a family tree were so irrational, that it was actually more irrational to be rational, than to do what Wishman did which was to show random people being butchered and calling it a family. Their quest for coherence was itself irrational. That’s why I led it unfold. But then I had to say: I want you to enjoy the crazy hybrid family … some people said some were adopted … that was great because when you make a family tree you don’t make room for adopted people.
Luc Kinsch: The adopted, the bad element, the thing that doesn’t fit … this film was a bad element that threw them into a panic. What do you sense behind the students’ way of talking about – or avoiding – film? Fears, personal issues, their relation to you?
Lance Duerfahrd: I find that they have been trained, both in school and by culture at large, to talk in a way that separates them from the film, and from their film experience. I can see how much culture does to alienate people from seeing clearly, from simply describing things accurately, from investigation of any sort.
I feel there’s a lot of defensive thinking. They want sense from the film but don’t want to do anything to make that sense (and thereby make it theirs).
They rely on vague words they draw from social interaction, or from the warnings given to them by their parents. A whole vocabulary intercedes between them and their experience as if it were the way to make that experience (of a film) more acceptable to others. One girl called everything “creepy.” The Shining was “creepy.” This is her blanket word for something she’s afraid of but which she doesn’t understand. Calling it creepy is a way of not understanding what that thing is.
I find that what I mostly do is go to work on these terms they choose (or that seem to be chosen for them). With the girl who kept using “creepy” I first had to establish what kind of creepiness she was talking about- what aspect or area of her experience did she image (in her mind) when she uses this term? She mentioned a guy in high school with whom she never spoke but who asked her to the prom, suddenly and with urgent passion. She called him “creepy.”
So I help the students mend their experience by having to take some kind of responsibility for the way they speak about things. I asked the girl, as a follow up question, at what point The Shining seemed to ask her to the prom. When did she realize it had been watching her (and when did she notice it had been watching her?)? When did it issue an invitation to her to go somewhere? These are not bad ways to actually phrase the way a film affects someone. Kubrick’s films in fact have this sense of a ceremony we are beckoned into: I thought it was a good step with the alienated student. But it took some diligent surgery on her words to get her there. What I did was in two separate steps: first, connect the word to your life (give me a sense of its meaning). Second, connect your life to the film.
I also feel she was unconsciously referring to the way the camera creeps throughout Kubrick’s film. I asked her “What’s the difference between a creeping film and a creepy one?”
Luc Kinsch: How do students relate to characters? It’s enigmatic: these are not real people on the screen, yet the experience we have with them is intense.
Lance Duerfahrd: To me the characters are obstacles for discussion because students want to talk about motivations, the whys, etc. The characters can consolidate a student’s hate for a film, which is only their own inability to get into it. For example, they unanimously say that the characters in Cassavetes’ Faces are “drunk, middle age crisis people. Drunk!” I try sometimes to stay away from the notion of character per se because for students it means psychology, questions of motivations, etc. Instead of character I tend to ask the students to think of gesture, facial expressions, clothing. These things seem to magnetize their attention differently, and in new ways. Psychology is always stuff inherited from either common sense or the dinner table.
When I show them The Last Laugh by Murnau I really try to get them in touch with the pace or speed of the old man in the film: everything he does is incredibly slow. I want to sensitize them to something rarely seen in cinema.
Students react in inexplicable ways to characters, and it’s the hardest thing to work with. Two Lane Blacktop: students unanimously hate it, feel the characters waste their (the spectators’) time. There’s a kind of drifting of characters that seems to irritate the students and make them impatient. They don’t see this as real (a mark of the film’s effort to do something other than the clichés), but merely an imposition on their attention.
I think character is the name for that thing that inspires irrational hatred – like the scorpion stinging the frog in the fable, where he says, “it’s my character.” Character has a blinding force. I remember one girl who got very upset that the Fred MacMurray character in Double Indemnity kept calling Phyllis “baby.” She wrote about how it irritated her. She said nothing about their murdering her husband.
Luc Kinsch: She couldn’t tolerate a dramatization or simple mise en scène of people’s behavior on screen. The character gets shut down, as if he were a real. Can you give me an example of how you introduce a foreign element into a regular film class, with more reputable films, to interrupt an intellectualized, mainstreamed debate?
Lance Duerfahrd: I can give an example from teaching Film Noir. One of the more traditional essays is that claim by Janey Place and Lowell Peterson that film noir is all about light and shadow, light and dark. They mention a director (whose name escapes me) and say about his film: his goal was to make a film you could turn upside down and it would look just as fascinating to you.
Basically, it’s a hyper-aesthetic view of film noir. The students didn’t know what to make of it. The authors were making such a point of it: this is what separated film noir, and it’s all about the ambiguity of shadow. I guess it’s fine if you are invested in theory to understand what’s at stake there but the students didn’t. They didn’t. So I brought in an Athena projector, popular in classrooms in the 70s. They had a few at Yale still. You could show film in reverse, you could still a frame – back in the day they used to still the frame and examine a single image from the film as part of film analysis. I showed them the beginning of The Killers in reverse. I asked them: what happens to the shadow if the film is shown in reverse? Do we need the element of time? Is there an element of time in film noir, is there a sense of imminent approach rather than mere light and dark variations? It was a simple thing to do. In reverse the shadows are the same, but they mean something different.. I took seriously what the essay said, just to hyperbolically enact it by playing it in reverse. To take it seriously and say: if what they say is true then this film should make sense to you. And it didn’t. It was eerie: it looked like a horror film. In reverse film noir becomes a horror film, almost like the reverse motion at the end of Carrie, or of any Dreyer film in the 20s, when he shows things in reverse. It became eerie rather than ominous. It was a good exercise.
Luc Kinsch: This was in response to an article, a sentence in an article. If we want to criticize these articles… When we go to the cinema, we have incredibly subjective stuff come to our mind, we use it for all kinds of stuff. Sometimes when these authors go to the cinema, they have that reaction but they try to couch it into a logical, consensual, thing – and they generalize about film noir, and so forth – whereas it’s just something that came into their head – some idea they had.
Lance Duerfahrd: The notion of film as an idea is fine. But I try to do things that get students to get it from an idea to a verbalization, or an expression. The goal is not to passively learn about film, just as it is not to sit and watch film entirely passively as if were something being put into your lap. Take for instance, when I did editing at Columbia. There are many ways to introduce editing to students: you can show them clips of films, you can give them theory, you can talk about montage, you can show them Eisenstein … I took my class out. The class met at night and I took them out to an apartment building across the street, around 8 at night. We stayed across the street, and we looked at the apartment building. I asked them to study the light on the ceiling of everyone’s apartment because the blue light from their televisions was thundering. Everyone in this apartment building seemed to be watching TV with the lights out. And this is very convenient. Because when you watch from across the street, you see how many interruptions there are to the light from the TV. It goes black, and then there is image again, it goes black, and then there is image again … sometimes it’s very staccato, sometimes it’s very elongated, like there are long unbroken shots. And you don’t notice this when you are watching TV. You don’t even notice there are edits in TV. In fact there are not even edits: the lights go off for a second. I told my students was: let’s think of this as a rhythm that actually determines your viewing experience but it’s a rhythm you can only see as a Peeping Tom because if you are in the apartment watching it, it happens too quick. And yet you don’t know it’s happening to you, you have to leave your apartment, go across the street. I also said: can you guess what type of TV show they are watching? or can you make sense of what the rhythm of light is doing ? Because that’s editing – that’s more about editing than knowing what montage is.
Luc Kinsch: I know you take your Bad Film class to the local sewage facility, and they talk to the staff there. That is very peculiar to you: the Peeping Tom, the sewage facility … When was the first time in your teaching experience that you did something like that, with the students?
Lance Duerfahrd: I think it began with a show and tell that I insisted on when I was teaching literary theory at Yale. Literary theory is pure abstraction. In this particular class, it was pure abstraction. It was getting out of hand. It was never in hand. It was getting out of hand, not in the sense that great risks were being taken. We were just affirming a progression of what other people said about literature and our thirst to understand it. Which is a constructive enterprise. I brought in a case of SPAM, a type of processed ham in a can. It might be the abbreviation of something…
Luc Kinsch: Tell me exactly how you got that idea.
Lance Duerfahrd: I don’t remember but I brought in the SPAM and I said: I want you to tell me what Hegel would say about this. It started with the introduction of something that didn’t belong in the classroom. It reoriented us. It snapped the spell that is enforced merely by studying just texts-just students and me leading the class. That can be creative but a spell is created by not interrupting. Because it’s never interrupted, we never really know where we are. We have conversations, and conversations have a lot of interruptions in them …
Luc Kinsch: So you were lost in all the intellectuality.
Lance Duerfahrd: Yes, very much lost. A lot of those students went on to become teachers of literature, a lot of them became professors. I don’t know why. May be it has to do with the SPAM, more than the other stuff…
Luc Kinsch: Hegel is very difficult. When you bring in the SPAM, you risk losing the thread, or the seriousness. Bringing in a foreign element risks overwhelming Hegel quickly. Why are you not worried about that, when you do that?
Lance Duerfahrd: Because you don’t approach the SPAM with disdain. Most of what you teach as a teacher is a disposition. It’s not information, it’s not even method. It’s a new habit of orienting yourself – having the students orient him or herself – towards something which only got their disdain and then rapid abandonment. They would let go of it very quickly. It’s more important to be serious about SPAM than about Hegel. That was actually the stretch that helped students think about the relation between matter and spirit, and the dialectic…
Luc Kinsch: What was the Hegelian context?
Lance Duerfahrd: It was the Philosophy of History. He talks about how the spirit progresses dialectically in history: spirit moves through matter in what Hegel calls the slaughterbench of history. Spirit uses Napoleon as a particular type of shell … shit, I don’t remember the context exactly…I might have asked what kind of shell SPAM offered to spirit, or whether it was a shell at all. It was a good move. In the same way, when I was in class as a TA where the Professor was teaching film history and said: “okay, tracking shot, this is what you have to know about tracking shot…” And I brought in Pink Flamingos to my section, where Divine is walking down the street of Baltimore. A tracking shot of Divine through the window of a car. What you notice is not the tracking shot, you notice Divine, this 300-pound transvestite being ogled and stared at by the African American street community of Baltimore. The goal for me was to find the example of cinema that made it obscene to talk about it technically. To bring in an example that had such impact that to talk about a tracking shot would be a clear effort to hide something.
Luc Kinsch: Serge Daney famously objects to the tracking shot at the end of Kapo, where the camera tracks to the face of a concentration camp victim. For him it’s wrong.
Lance Duerfahrd: Students wouldn’t understand Daney’s objection to the framing of the victim’s face through the tracking shot. They only have a vague hunch about what the Holocaust is. It’s more accessible for them to see the impact made by Divine on the sidewalk, in her way. It speaks to them a little more directly. The image shakes with the strangeness of the transvestite, and the men and women on the streets of Baltimore. Daney questioned the shot in Kapo – it was about the framing of the face of that woman Emmanuelle Riva – where she dies at the electric fence. My point was to step away from talking first about the tracking shot. He says the director who did this should be condemned. When I showed the tracking shot of Divine it was not to condemn the director but to transpose the discussion.
Follow up questions asked in an email
Luc Kinsch: Bad films lack prestige. Your approach to teaching film eschews imparting knowledge from the perspective of the one who knows, but chooses to start from a moment of ignorance: trying to acknowledge a primal experience. You choose getting back to the zero point of knowledge over the forgetting of experience that comes with the professorial imparting of “vetted” knowledge. You have written a book on Beckett: you are interested in the “bare minimum”. Can you comment in relation to teaching film? In how far does this approach ring truer to you, on a personal level?
Lance Duerfahrd: I start away from knowledge because knowledge tips the power of the classroom in distinct and predictable ways (towards me, away from the students). I encourage students to write about what they don’t know, paradoxically. Because then it’s not a matter of right or wrong, knowing too little or too much, but about discretion before the object: what can I say about it? They learn that speaking is about nearing the experience, and about conveying it at the same time. By this angle (that I take) students hopefully see how easy it is to be indiscreet about film, to overstate things for example.
Most of learning has to do with shedding. This is Beckettian: subtractive movements, almost near to ignorance, as precondition to a state of learning. I see my students doing all they can to prematurely fill the void of the film experience with things masquerading as knowledge: IMDB, for example. I forbid them from googling the film before they see it. I call it the Junior Prom phenomenon. The Junior Prom didn’t exist because it was expected. Everyone looked forward to it for weeks and I have yet to hear from any of my students that they enjoyed it. But this isn’t the prom’s fault – it’s their expectation that was clogging their ability of perception. The fact that students panic and google films, or try to fill their minds about it through other sources (the internet, or things they’ve heard, or gossip about the film) indicates in reverse how terrifyingly empty the film experience is. Not even the experience of it is in your hands, so students, without knowing it, cushion this blow in the way’s I’ve stated.
Beckett’s stories: they are film-like in the sense that there can be no “spoiler.” (A spoiler is someone who gives a plot point away to someone who hasn’t seen a film). I keep telling my students that knowing the plot in advance should not spoil your experience of it. I ask them: is there such a thing as a spoiler for a home movie? Or how about for the Zapruder film? I keep going back to home movies and the Zapruder film (the extremes of private film versus public document) as a way to show that desire (while watching a film) is unstinted by knowing what happens. Or should be.
Luc Kinsch: Students, you say, refuse estrangement. Can you comment on alienation versus estrangement, familiarity (which can be a kinder form of estrangement) versus unfamiliarity, or ideology.
Lance Duerfahrd: Estrangement is a curious and valuable experience. The mood of a film, for example: often hard to name, to pinpoint, and for this reason it is the thing that envelops you and lingers in your mind long after you leave a film. I would call this estrangement because it estranges you from language and yet it conditions a lot of what we feel in a movie. An alienated student, by contrast, would not even pick up on the mood. I’m keen on the persistence of this thing that resists naming or which can provoke multiple names.
I did an assignment with my class once to promote the immersion in this estranged state. I asked the students to visit the 4 or 5 antique shops in downtown Lafayette (Lafayette is no longer a place of industry but of overpriced knickknacks). I told them their goal is to find an object that would be at home in one of the films we watched. With this I had them read a little essay by Louis Aragon called “On Décor” where he essentially says cinema is not a human medium, but one of objects. I had them go on a quest for something but without really knowing what they were looking for. I was counting on their visual memory suddenly coming into alignment with whatever strange object they might find in the stores. In this way they can see the word Hitchockianly, or Roegianly, or Kubrickianly, or like Polanski. It was an unusual exercise because I forewent the articulation step in favor of tapping more into that mental memory, that smell, of the films they had been watching. I wanted the film to be triggered by the world.
We then spent two classes walking through the antique stores. Students did their presentations in the shops. They spoke about how certain pieces of furniture, rugs, diamonds, hats, a soap dish, might be integrated into the worlds of the films we watched. Background or foreground? What mood did these antiques have? They essentially had to cinematize the object.
After this exercise I asked them to write about why they wouldn’t be able to find any possible props in a WalMart. That is, what does the usedness of an object tell us about its cinematic value, or about the things that comprise the cinematic image?
I think of the terms you mention in entirely pedagogical ways. The familiar is a kind of military maneuver. It usurps things to its name. Films can’t resist this process. The students try to familiarize rather than let the strangeness (their own estrangement) sink in.
You asked me to describe the Wastewater Treatment Facility visit. First, I think it taps into some of these issues. I bring them there because I keep insisting that we can find some resemblance to something we are doing while watching a film. That is, the treatment plant becomes a curious opportunity to think about what a spectator does with a film.
The essential activity is one of filtering/screening/ extraction. It’s about what purposes these activities serve either with film watching or with treating waste water. An image moves by us very quickly, what are the means by which we take something from it?
The more I talk to the students about this, the more I can show them that there’s actually an abundance of stuff in a film. They think that what they take from it is all that is there. But I try to show that there are other, untapped, mines in every film. To establish this (and bad film is rife with this, since it harbors all accidents and chance elements from its production, and leaves them in), I compare film’s recording power to flypaper. Where Godard says film is truth 24 times a second, I tell them it’s actually closer to 24 sheets of flypaper a second. (Flypaper looks like a film strip: things stick to it, and it’s a good metaphor for the recording process)
The wastewater facility is really incredible because of all the steps taken to “purify” the stream of water. There are simple screens (for the big objects), then there’s a sedimentation process, then there’s a chemical process where they throw microbes in to clean up the water (called “the final clarifier.”) I want the students to see, by implication, that the process of removing debris (or tings of value) from a film is no less institutional/complicated/ mechanical.
I take them to this facility, again, because it helps illuminate an activity that goes on in front of a moving image (a stream of images).
I don’t psychoanalyze my students (to see what is hindering or pushing their need to watch film.) Instead, I have them psychoanalyze the wastewater treatment-plant.
Before we go to the plant I give a kind of slideshow to provocatively align the two activities. For example, the similarity between a camera lens cap
I ask my students about what these images have in common, other than geometrical shape: what risk happens when you take the caps off? What kind of complex labyrinth does each lid open for your experience?
1.) “Anmerkungen zu einer neuen Ethik” in Aktion 6 Dezember 1913, in Hurwitz 107.